Stage Craft for Singers
Performing on stage is the goal of most singers. Whatever style of music appeals to you, singing before an audience is not the same as singing in a studio.
If you sing in a choir you have one set of performance requirements. You must walk on confidently (no shuffling), find your position and stand still, ready to follow the direction of the choir director. Any movement will be coordinated by the choir director. Your eyes should be focused on the director.
But maybe you dream of being a rock star, the lead in a musical, a nightclub singer, or the lead vocalist in a gospel choir.
When you perform live or in a video production, the visual aspect of the performance is just as important as the music itself. Without a doubt, your music has to be on point, but what you do on stage, what you look like, the costume or outfit you wear, your makeup, and how you interact with your audience becomes very important in your audience's perception of your performance. Many singers believe that the music will carry itself. Not so. If you are in front of an audience, you need to present a total package consisting of a visual as well as an auditory experience. This will work best and will not be complicated if you are sharing your true self. Here's how to develop yourself as a performer so you can entertain an audience with the music you've worked so hard to perfect.
The first thing to work on is stage confidence. This is a result of a number of factors. Number one is preparation. Practice your music daily. Memorize the words. Make sure you can hit every note reliably. People pay money to hear you at your best. They don't want to hear you testing out the edges of your range, attempting a new lick you haven't mastered, or trying any other technique you aspire to be able to incorporate in your act. Add those when you can do them right every single time. Knowing that everything you will be performing is second nature to you increases your confidence level and this will be evident to the audience.
Learn the language of the stage so you can follow the directions of a director and easily communicate with your fellow performers. You'll find a primer of stage terminology in my article titled "Stage Vocabulary for Singers".
Understand that you have a role to perform. It's your job to entertain people. Think of yourself as an actor. You are acting the part of an engaging singer who wows the audience and makes the songs come alive.
When you first appear before the audience, SMILE!! Turn on your million watt version. Stop thinking about yourself and reach out to the audience. They are here to enjoy themselves. When people are happy, their faces light up and they smile. You want to project happiness so the starting point for the audience is also happiness. Happiness to see you, eagerness to hear the songs you are going to sing, gladness at being able to see you - that's how you want the audience to feel.
Walk on stage with confidence. Don't slink in like you expect to be pinned to the wall. Hold your head up, shoulders back, chest lifted. Good posture is critical for good singing. Additionally, this posture projects confidence that you are ready to give the audience a show.
Use your eyes to connect with the audience. If you are in a smaller venue and the place is lit such that you can actually see the audience, pick out people and look directly at them and smile. While you are singing you want to move your eyes through your audience. One simple strategy is to start by finding a person in the right hand side of your audience and sing a line to that person, move your head and eyes to the center and sing the next phrase to a person in the center, then find a person in the left hand side for the next phrase. Do this naturally. Don't jerk your head around unless it fits the music. Instead, think about this as having a conversation with a group of people. You want to involve the group in what you have to say. The best way to do that is to look them in the eyes. If you are performing in a large venue, use the same technique of moving your head and eyes to look toward a specific section of the audience even if you can't see them because they are either too far away or the house is dark and you can't see them past the spot lights shining on you. They are there and they will be able to see your face. If you feel truly uncomfortable looking at the faces in the audience, pick out points slightly higher than the faces (like the Exit signs, support columns, or lighting sconces) and use the movements described.
When you walk on stage, go to a point and stop. If there is a fixed microphone, use that to position yourself. If you carrying a microphone, go to center stage or down stage from center. If you are doing a nightclub act, you could stand by the piano. Know before you enter the stage where your starting point will be. Acknowledge your audience's welcoming applause with a big smile and a slight nod. If it suits your type of performance and the venue size, a quick "thank you" and a brief wave with a fully extended arm and hand would be fitting.
You don't have to do a lot of movement to achieve an energized performance. Again, think about your song delivery as story-telling in a conversational way. Any movements you do should fit the song and should be thought out and practiced before the performance. Remember; the visual in a live show or video performance is just as important as the music itself. Watch yourself in the mirror. Videotape yourself singing and using different gestures and facial expressions. Weed out those that don't enhance the performance. Research what other performers do to find motions that work for your song and your stage persona. Search the internet for videos of performers you really enjoy watching and note what they do with their hands, arms, microphones, and facial features. Find the song you are going to perform and watch different performers who have performed it and notice what they have done during their performance. Does this hand motion fit the words perfectly? Adopt it. Does that facial expression capture the moment? Practice it in the mirror. You want to develop a set of motions and facial expressions that complement the song and help tell its story.
One mistake performers can easily make in this direction is pantomiming the song. Elaborate gestures that spell out the meaning of the song work well in musical comedy or if you are parodying a piece. For other situations, any motion you do should be adding emotive content to the performance within the context of song and the venue.
Facial expression for lead singers is essential. Your face should be alive; not dead or blank. As a singer, your mouth needs to be forming the sound you are emitting so it is beautiful and carries to the farthest reaches of the auditorium. Smiling is often at odds with producing a beautiful sound. You can smile during the song when you are not singing and before and after singing. While you are singing, use your eyes and eyebrows to convey meaning and emphasis. Also remember to move your head such that it will be full-on to different segments of your audience during your performance.
Your eyes are a crucial part of your performance. The two most common mistakes with eyes are keeping them closed for the entire song and keeping them looking up at the ceiling. Shutting your eyes and staring at the ceiling while you sing says to the audience that you are nervous and don't want to be there. You can close your eyes briefly as part of an expression change, perhaps to indicate wishfulness and longing for example, but your eyes should be open the rest of the time and communicating the message of your song. Glancing at the ceiling momentarily to express exasperation is fine, prolonged fixation on it is not.
Your hands and arms can also add meaning to your presentation. It is better, however, to just stand still with your arms comfortably at your sides than to flail them around without purpose. Think of arm and hand gestures as larger versions of what you might do if you were talking with your best friend. When you perform on a stage your gestures must be larger so the audience members at the back of the auditorium can see what you are doing. A common mistake in this regard is to move only from the elbows down. Move your arm from the shoulder. Also remember to keep your arms and hands from blocking the view of your face. Putting your hand in front of your face muffles your voice. If you decide to incorporate a move that uses your hand in front of your face, perhaps to create a sense of mystery, make sure the movement is brief and preferably done while you are not actually singing.
During musicals and operas, you usually do not use a microphone. You rely of vocal projection and the theater acoustics to bring your voice to the audience. For concerts of many other types of music and nightclub performances, you will typically have a microphone. If it is stationary, you need to make sure your movements are planned such that they can all be performed at that stationary position or that you are back at that stationary position each time you need to sing. If you are using a microphone which you will detach from its stand, practice taking the microphone off and putting it back on the stand so these are easy movements. When you take the microphone off the stand, pick up the stand with your other hand and gently place it behind you without turning your body or face away from the audience. It should be within easy reach so you can reverse the process when you want to put the microphone back on the stand.
Different microphones work best with slightly different techniques. You will want to become familiar with the specific microphone with which you are working. Most microphones work best when your voice is directed straight into the center. Many singers rest the microphone against their bottom lip so the sound is consistent. As your distance from the microphone changes, the amplification of your voice changes as well. Lots of singers invest in a good microphone that they take with them to performances for sanitary reasons. If you aren't ready for that, just hold the microphone about an inch away from your mouth.
You can use the microphone stand as a prop either with the microphone attached or with the microphone in one hand and the stand in the other. As a "prop" I mean as something you use to add excitement to your performance, not as something you use to keep yourself upright. An easy thing to do when the microphone is attached is to lean the stand over in one hand away from you and then bring it back sharply as you start the next musical phrase. This type of movement might fit a rock-n-roll, hip hop, or grunge performance. Of course, to avoid knocking your teeth out, you need to do this with control. Really every movement you do, even things that look wild, must really be controlled in order for the performance to work.
Taking acting and dancing classes will provide you with more confidence and ideas about movements you can add to your performance. If money is limited, watch on-line tutorials on acting and dancing to improve your knowledge.
Talk to performers you enjoy watching if you get a chance. Attend your local theater productions or stop by a nightclub featuring the type of performer you would like to become. Watch what they do and ask yourself how it helps the audience understand the song and enjoy the music. Strike up a conversation with other audience members during the intermission or after the show. Did they enjoy the show? What did they like best? If you can visit backstage, tell the performer how much you enjoyed the performance and ask them how they got the idea for some aspect of the performance you really enjoyed.
There are certain situations where you may end up lip synching. Most often this occurs when the venue is outdoors. Outdoor venues can be very tricky - the weather, the acoustics, and the sheer size can all lead to the decision to use lip synching. Voices, even powerful ones, can only do so much and factors like the cold can affect the vocal chords such that the high notes don't come out even if they are in your normal range. The cold also numbs your lips and makes it difficult to enunciate clearly. Sometimes you end up lip synching at an indoor venue. This is most often caused by the ambient noise level of the venue. If the venue is such that the singer cannot hear him or herself, then lip synching may be the only solution.
Speaking of hearing yourself as you sing, you must do a sound check prior to your performance. The sound engineer needs a chance to figure out what settings work, your accompanying instrumentalists need to set their equipment properly, and you need to make sure you can hear your monitor (the speaker that allows you to hear what you are singing). If you can't hear yourself singing, you will sing out of tune. In addition to your monitor, if you want to check that you are on pitch during a performance, you can always use the age-old technique of cupping one of your ears. Some people like to press a finger against their ear to close the ear canal. These techniques lessen the ambient noise and amplify your own voice within your brain so that you can hear what you are doing.
Performing on a stage requires a combination of skills. The musical part is the center piece and must be as good as you can make it. The visual package you wrap it in must enhance the music; add to its life and vibrancy. Share the part of yourself that is outgoing; that reaches out to others; that is joyful and revels in the beauty of the music. You'll engage your audience and make them glad they came to see you.